Burning Food for Fuel – Pondering the morality of a growing practice

"Cornheap" by Pratheepps - photographed by Pratheepps.  Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.
“Cornheap” by Pratheepps – photographed by Pratheepps. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

I write this blog post humbly confessing that I am not an economist or a politician. I am not an expert on the oil industry or on “alternative fuels.” Neither am I an agricultural expert.  I write as a priest and a moral theologian to ponder a puzzling trend that I might provocatively title “Burning food for fuel.”

Most notably, this is done in the production of ethanol, which uses corn. Increasingly, the government, likely pressured by certain industries and lobbies, is requiring that 10% of fuels be composed of ethanol.

Of course this requires an enormous amount of corn, which would seem to skew agriculture and the food supply. At a bare minimum it would seem that the price of corn would rise. Corn is a fairly basic staple of the world’s food supply and raising its price would seem to harm the poor especially. Further, as corn becomes more lucrative, it seems likely that more of it would be planted and less of other necessities such as rice, barley, and other grains. This doesn’t seem very good either.

Consider some excerpts from an article (on Oxfam America’s website) that I read recently:

Ethanol has been touted as the solution to our energy and climate crises. [But] Ethanol is not the answer to our oil dependency. Even if all the corn grown in the US was used for fuel, it would replace only one out of six gallons.

Meanwhile, ethanol is contributing to global hunger. Last year, 40 percent of corn grown in the US went to fuel instead of food. If all the land used to grow biofuels for the EU in 2008 had instead been used to grow food, it could have fed 127 million people for an entire year. Major land grabs are happening all over the world, often propelled by the market’s demand for biofuels, leaving marginalized communities without access to traditional land and water to grow food….

The governors of North Carolina and Arkansas have asked the EPA to waive the renewable fuel standards mandate, which requires at least 10 percent of unleaded gasoline be made from ethanol. Waiving the corn ethanol mandate will lead to an estimated 7.4 percent drop in global corn prices, which will in turn lower prices for meat, milk, eggs, and more. For people living in poverty who spend up to 75 percent of their income on food, this small change can make a big impact.

Turning corn into fuel only compounds global hunger. America cannot build our own energy security on the back of people living in poverty—it is morally indefensible and wrong for our own energy, climate, and national security interests. We have an opportunity right now to press the pause button on misguided US corn ethanol policy by telling the EPA to waive the corn ethanol mandate.

These are excerpts; the full article is here: Burning down the house to heat it.

I cannot vouch for or verify all of the points in this article, and I know nothing about Oxfam. But to put it again in a provocative way: burning food for fuel seems to go against common sense to me.

Food is a very precious and necessary commodity. Fuel is surely important, but it is secondary to food. Given that we can easily fuel our machinery with something other than food, it seems foolish to burn large quantities of food for fuel.

I would like to know your thoughts on this. Perhaps you will want to school me on some basic economic issues that I’m forgetting. Perhaps it is possible that we have such an overabundance of food that burning some of it for fuel actually makes sense.

But something tells me this is a very bad idea—maybe even immoral if it has severe effects on the poor and the hungry throughout the world, as I suspect it will.

Something else tells me that this is rooted more in an irrational fear and hatred of the petroleum industry, pressure by agricultural lobbies, and a misguided environmentalism that worries more about pollution than feeding the hungry.

But I realize these are complex issues, and what I really want to do is generate a discussion, share information, raise concerns, and perhaps alleviate some of them. Let me know what you think.

Here’s a different point of view:

21 Replies to “Burning Food for Fuel – Pondering the morality of a growing practice”

  1. All I see is hydrogenated corn syrup or corn syrup on many packaged food items.
    It seems that corn is a filler for cars and human intakes. Popcorn is yummy!!

      1. I think her point is that ethanol is a diversion from junk food?

        1. My point was that corn is used in nearly all processed foods and in ethanol.
          There seems to be an overabundance of it. And I was being facetious because
          Its not nutritional but its tasty.

  2. Reminds me of a story told by the late Fr. Vincent McNabb O.P. While preparing to give one of his weekly talks at Hyde Park in London a representative from the coal miners union from Wales asked if Fr. McNabb would offer a moment of silence for the miners who had come from Wales to London. They were there to essentially beg for food from the government for their hungry families back home. Fr. McNabb did as asked but when he was finished he threw out his prepared talked and instead preached on the insanity which drove miners to come from Wales which was once the most (or one of) productive agricultural region(s) of the UK. The farmers turned over their lands to the coal mines which once the supply of coal was exhausted moved on, leaving behind them a wasteland. So now the coal miners, unemployed and without farms, were left starving and forced to come to the city begging for food. Undoubtedly someone will respond with an economic theory stating how ultimately this was a good thing considering the energy output created and the overall growth of the British economy as a result. I’m sure that were Fr. McNabb here today he would have an answer for the economic argument but more importantly a theological response which would trump it them both.

    It should be noted too that ethanol is much less efficient as a fuel than gasoline with a lower mpg, meaning you need more to run the same distance, using up even more of the food resources.

  3. Father,

    I am not an economist either however, I think the issue is less the ability to use corn for fuel and more the government ‘mandating’ the use and at a particular level. There are always consequences – some pointed out in your article. (Regardless of whether the percentage is correct, the concept/consequence is likely.)

    On the other hand, sound bit – ‘burning food for fuel’ and the numbers about how many people the same acres will feed also ignore the realities of hunger caused by wars, despots, lack of good transportation and roads (often caused by wars and despots). Additionally, the excerpt in your article doesn’t acknowledge the reality of needing workers, equipment, infrastructure built, etc. to grow corn when companies buy land,

    I realize that you know this is not a simple, no consequence situation. However, the government mandate of a certain % of corn in a certain % of all fuel is the issue. I agree this is driven by certain ideological groups (example the ‘green’ groups) as well as certain economic groups (corn farms as an example). Of the two, only the ideological groups can’t as easily push their agenda in a freer market place but require the government to mandate an approach. Ideologues seldom look at or care about consequences outside of their often narrow pet issue.

  4. This is a very complex issue, and if I had a good answer, I would run for political office. I would like to add that a great deal of corn is also used in pet food and to feed meat animals. If we also decreased our high meat diet, we could also feed many hungry people. Similarly, having pets is a luxury, and we need to consider the impact. Coming from the Midwest, I am happy to give farmers more options, but I think of local farmers who work hard and have to deal with many difficulties, like weather and increasing land cost. Sadly, these folks are probably not benefiting from Ethanol as much as large industrial farmers. I am very leery of global initiatives that seek to make changes. I think that they are well meaning, but they can be misguided. For example, Haiti was at one time a producer of rice. In an effort to feed people, the UN has dumped inexpensive rice there, so now no one grows rice. But no one emoyees local workers and the country is dependent on aid. These are important issues that need to be considered. However, I think the principle of subsidiarity applies. Feeding the hungry is important, but we need to find local solutions. Making changes in Europe to feed the hungry in Ethiopia is not going to work. There has to be political will in both places, and this is too complicated for a simple reduction in Ethanol use to cause a change in prices that allows millions to be fed. We are very clever and will find new ways to use the products or the land that will continue to make the most money. Without the ethanol, perhaps farming becomes too expensive, and we sell the land for a subdivision or we switch to another moneymaking crop. I think it is good to ponder these issues, but I can have limited impact in this area. While pondering is good, I am tempted to throw up my hands and say I can´t impact this problem. However, I need to use the concern I have for the poor to make changes in my life that do have an impact–growing my own food, living in a smaller house, recycling, walking instead of driving, using native plants. . . I think it is up to everyone to examine their life to see where they can make a difference.

  5. I’m neither a politician nor an agronomist. But here are a few things I’ve observed about ethanol in the United States.

    1) The movement to ethanol, I think, has its roots in two places. First, before we started drilling for shale oil and other hard-to-reach fossil fuels, there was concern that we would run out of oil. There was also a lot of concern about oil prices. Ethanol — oil from corn — was offered as a way to counter increasing fuel prices and to lessen reliance on regimes that don’t always have American interests at heart. Additionally, the ethanol lobby has particular influence in the United States because Iowa holds the first caucus in presidential election years. Pledging loyalty to ethanol is right up there with kissing babies and shaking women’s hands on a presidential aspirant’s to-do list.

    2) Ethanol is not just made from corn. It can also be manufactured from sugarcane, switchgrass, and a number of other food crops.

    3) The ethanol industry does not merely exist as part of a free market. Both the ethanol mandate (“Make sure x percent of your gas is biofuels!”) and a tax credit to American biofuel producers (I don’t recall the exact amount) have created an industry that is essentially subsidized by the federal government. This has created an incentive for farmers to devote their crops to ethanol rather than to less lucrative items such as food or animal feed.

    4) That last bit is important. Corn and other crops aren’t just a vegetable side dish. They’re also feed for livestock. Because ethanol refiners are another customer in the marketplace, this has driven up the overall cost of the crops — including the cost of feed for livestock. This, in turn, means that steak and ground beef is more expensive at your local supermarket.

    Years ago, I supported ethanol as an alternative to fossil fuels. I was particularly concerned about reliance on former animal producers. But I have reconsidered that support in light of secondary economic effects I did not understand at the time.

  6. Oxfam may not be the best source but they are right on this point. Ethanol is bad science, worse ethics but good politics so it survives.

    1. “Ethanol is bad science, worse ethics but good politics so it survives.”

      This really says it all. It’s great that you’ve taken on this topic, Monsignor.

      May I be brutally honest here? Extreme environmentalists are allies of the culture of death. They constantly argue that there are too many people in the world and that our planet is suffering as a result. They are frankly more concerned about the alleged suffering of the planet than about human suffering. Some wealthy and influential environmentalists, such as Ted Turner, even advocate the implementation of China’s one child policy on a global scale:


      Undoubtedly, there are legitimate concerns about environmental conservation and prudent management of God’s natural patrimony. But we must not forget that the world’s most precious resource and the most important part of God’s natural patrimony is people. Food sources should not be depleted for the sake of a hopelessly expensive and inefficient fuel source that will never replace oil and coal.

      As David says, ethanol is good politics, but it’s bad policy. Hopefully, it won’t take a famine for policy makers to recognize this.

  7. Msgr,
    I am also not an economist, but I was raised as an IL farm boy with pigs, corn, and oats. A few points.

    1- Unless the biofuel industry has made some remarkable changes, producing ethanol uses more energy than it creates. This simply makes no sense. It may no longer be the case, but it was.

    2 – Unfortunately, yes, corn and other grains often go to feed livestock, even on our old family farm. This is not and never should have been the case. This is what has made our meat diet very unhealthy. Livestock naturally feed on grasses, shrubs, etc. It is our feeding them GMO grains that has made their meat unhealthy for us and contributed to the issue of human obesity, heart disease, etc. Locally-raised and produced, completely grass-fed (not grass-finished) livestock are much healthier, don’t have the amount of CO emissions that grain-fed livestock do, and can help us to be stronger and leaner.

    3 – Most of these issues, as others have pointed out, come back to money. Even though I come from a farm family, government subsidization of farming has been a huge destroyer of family farms. The farm I grew up on no longer really exists. After the death of my grandparents, one of my uncles sold all the pigs and the farmland to one of the large “corporate” farms in the area. The only pigs now raised in the area are in containment facilities, where they live cramped lives among other animals, with grating under their feet to help get rid of their urine and feces, while they are feed corn-based feed every day to fatten them as fast as possible to sell. It’s a horrible system, and for the neighbors, it literally stinks much more than the family farms ever did decades ago. Again, it comes down to money. If the money goes to biofuels and paying people for making them, then that’s where the resources go.

    If we say that we live in a “free-market” economy (read Being Consumed for a better definition of that term), then let it be a free-market, unhindered by governmental monetary subsidies and influences. Sorry this was long, but I truly lament what I’ve seen happen over my short 40 years of life.

  8. I am a mechanical engineer AND an economist.

    The amount of energy and resources required to produce ethanol (from planting and harvesting to processing into fuel alcohol) is extremely inefficient and costly requiring a significant amount of fuel and energy. Also, there was a recent study that claimed that burning ethanol is worse for the environment that regular gasoline.

  9. I am a full time professional energy analyst and I have addressed the food vs fuel issue in many venues including one sponsored by a major global central bank.

    Growing corn and processing it into ethanol requires many energy inputs and a lot of water. Consider the following: diesel fuel, natural gas, plus fertilizer and pesticides made from natural gas. There may still be a few ethanol distilleries in the midwest that burn coal as a heat source. The bottom line, and this is not disputed by anyone, is that the net energy balance produced by ethanol is not great. Technology is improving, but it is about 1.1 to 1. That means you only get about 10% more fossil energy out of ethanol that you put in. Meanwhile, you get considerable environmental side effects from water runoff, soil erosion, and fertilizer that makes its way into the Gulf of Mexico, where we now have giant dead spots because of the algal blooms that remove all oxygen from the water. The bottom line is that corn ethanol is not a very attractive or efficient way to produce energy. Though there is a positive case to be made for ethanol from sugar, or potentially for cellulosic ethanol, if it can ever work outside the laboratory.

    Ethanol began as a harmless and relatively small subsidy to corn farmers, but it has become a gigantic boondoggle that absorbs nearly half the crop. Surprisingly, it is not the only “farm” issue any more. The poultry, dairy, pork, and beef farmers are all protesting that higher feed hurt them. It is isn’t just people who eat corn!

    I could go on about international commodity price distortions and what US agriculture policy does to undermine the developing world’s ability to feed it self, but I will stop there.

    The market may demand a certain amount of ethanol for octane purposes, and one could argue that in a free market for fuels, we would probably still be using about 10% ethanol from whatever source in our fuel blends. There is no need to mandate corn.

    Meanwhile, the United States is on the verge of becoming the world’s number one oil producer. And it turns to the much of the world has “tight oil” possibilities even greater than ours. The world is not running out of oil, as we once feared. And other technologies are coming on fast. The time for the corn ethanol program is long since passed on economic, environmental, and social justice grounds.

    PS–If you want an eye opener, google for Dina Capiello’s Associated Press report about the environmental damage being done by large scale corn farming for ethanol.

  10. Those who support “going green” often overlook – or ignore – that “renewable” does not equal “free” and that often such efforts are robbing Peter to pay Paul.

    Consider electric vehicles – the car itself may not be pumping exhaust fumes into the atmosphere, but the coal-fired plant that provided the electricity certainly is. There is concern that electric vehicles, more silent than their combustion-engine counterparts, can catch pedestrians and cyclists unaware.

    Hybrid and electric vehicles are more expensive than their gas-guzzling counterparts…how many car buyers are doing the math to see when they’d break even with the gas savings v. higher price (and higher financing costs…and insurance premiums)?

    Solar panels are popular, too, but again there’s the break-even point to consider.

    WInd farms are a confirmed hazard to birds (why, I don’t know. Don’t birds look where they’re going?)

    Compact fluorescent lightbulbs use less energy and last longer, but they can’t just be tossed in the wastebasket as one could with incandescent bulbs. CFLs contain hazardous materials.

    I fear that “going green” is less about protecting the flora and fauna that are God’s gift to us, and more about enabling the gluttony of conspicuous consumption…McMansions, electronic everything (my husband, a teacher, flatly refuses to have a smartboard in his classroom. In fact he had the whiteboard taken out so that he could use Ye Olde Blackboard.), expecting one’s favorite fruits and vegetables in the fresh produce section year-round. Yes, we are gluttons and that REALLY is the problem. The ethanol requirement is but a symptom.

    1. Just one small comment about CFLs: they are DESIGNED to last longer than incandescent light bulbs but the quality of their manufacture is shoddy resulting in them burning off constantly and complicating the disposal problem furthermore.

  11. Ethanol is the biggest government racket going. It is a boodogle of epic proportions.

  12. Ethanol is “Exhibit A” in chrony capitalism.
    Two additional sins (that an engineer might corroborate). It can corrode engine components at levels being proposed by the EPA, and it causes a DECREASE in engine output, which lowers fuel economy.

  13. The Clang Bird flies in decreasing spiral untjl it crashes.More energy goes in than out.
    Fuel cell was shot down in lieu of hybrids electric cars.Why , against all logic.We cant generate enough power now
    People are of no concern.Too many now.
    Unless you can efficiently convert the stalks using corn is foolish.

    Insanity or is it well thought evil planning.

  14. The stupidity of the ethanol mandate has already been addressed so I will just note that farmers and ranchers grow more than enough food to feed the world’s population. People starve because of war, corruption, greed, and other forms of sin.

  15. I have lived long enough to see worries about global cooling turn into worries about global warming. I have seen worries about overpopulation turn into worries about declining populations. And all the while men are proclaiming: “I know!” But what they are really acting upon is their knowledge of what they think makes themselves happy; following Rousseau, that is their number one goal: what I want is what I have a right to, to make myself happy.

    Caring for others, outside of some government program to do so (and even that, only for political power they might gain), is not on their agenda. Narcissism used to be an illness; now it is a virtue in the eyes of most people. Pilate asked: “What is truth?” That question is more pertinent than ever, but I think an equally critical one has emerged: “What is love?” There was a commandment to love God and love neighbor. Even among those who say they believe in a God, I think there is a confusion over what that commandment means. IF people look at Jesus, they fail to see that He DID love people —- one at a time. A government program cannot love our neighbor.

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